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The Shock of the Old

Authenticity and Early Music: A Symposium

edited by Nicholas Kenyon
Oxford University Press, 219 pp., $14.95 (paper)


To take a harpsichord concerto by Johann Sebastian Bach and arrange it for a four-part chorus, organ, and orchestra would not, for most music lovers today, be considered the proper way to realize the composer’s intentions or even to show decent respect for the score. Yet this is what Bach himself did to his own harpsichord concerto in D minor—which was, incidentally, in its original version a violin concerto of a somewhat simpler cast. The ideal of performing a work as it would have been done during the composer’s lifetime or even by the composer himself gives rise to unexpected considerations, of which this is an extreme case, but by no means a rare one.

The effort to revive ancient instruments and early performance practice is not strictly modern: it can already be found in the first half of the nineteenth century. Early in our own century Arnold Dolmetsch and Wanda Landowska became major public figures with their championship of the harpsichord. It is, however, during the past two decades that the “Early Music” movement has taken on the character of a crusade, above all as it has moved beyond the sphere of medieval and baroque music and into the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Early Music is still a good name for the movement even now that it has reached Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin and is looking to Brahms and Debussy: the goal is to make these composers sound more ancient than we had imagined.

The success of the crusading spirit is undeniable: it can be measured by the extent to which it has imposed a new orthodoxy. In the days of our innocence, what we wanted was a performance that was technically perfect, effective, beautiful, moving, and even, for the most idealistic, faithful to the work or to the intentions of the composer. Fidelity is no longer enough: a performance must be authentic.

The new rallying cry, authenticity, represents a goal simpler and grander than fidelity: it is aptly modern in that it transcends the composer’s intentions, or at least circumvents them. The old ideal of fidelity demanded that the performer try to infer the composer’s intentions, and realize them with the least possible distortion. In a faithful interpretation, the performer’s own personality and his need for expression come into play essentially as a medium through which the work can be made public; the performer’s style would be capricious, willful, lyric, or dramatic as the work demanded it. Fidelity has its dangers, as the performer identifies himself only too easily with the composer, convinces himself without difficulty that the composer would have approved such-and-such a cut, been delighted with this accent, made an expressive relaxation of tempo in just that place. Nevertheless, fidelity demanded of performers a genuine sympathy with the composer’s style.

Authenticity dispenses with all this guesswork and uncertainty. It does not ask what the composer wanted, but only what he got. Intentions are irrelevant. (Some performers of Early Music now claim to return to the study of intentions, but the concentration is still on what was actually heard.) We no longer try to infer what Bach would have liked; instead, we ascertain how he was played during his lifetime, in what style, with which instruments, and how many of them there were in his orchestra. This substitutes genuine research for sympathy, and it makes a study of the conditions of old performance more urgent than a study of the text.

The success of the battle for authenticity is well merited, above all when one considers the contempt with which most professional musicians and critics only a generation ago greeted the efforts to revive old instruments and old ways of playing—the present intolerance of modern instruments is a natural reaction. Nevertheless, a new orthodoxy inevitably provokes doubts, inspires heresies. The hostility to Early Music is no longer as significant as the dissension within the ranks. Things are not as simple as they seemed in the earlier days of the movement, and the certainties of some decades ago have evaporated. We are no longer so sure that Scarlatti, wrote his five-hundred-odd sonatas for the harpsichord and not for the pianoforte; there is no agreement on whether Bach’s rhythms are to be executed in French style, with an irregular swing to it. There is fierce controversy about tempo in Mozart and Beethoven and about improvised ornamentation in opera and instrumental music. Above all, as our knowledge has increased of the wide variations in performance practice that coexisted throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it has become less and less evident what it means to return to the style of playing current during a composer’s lifetime—what, in short, an authentic interpretation would be.

A collection of essays called Authenticity and Early Music, skillfully put together and edited by Nicholas Kenyon, confronts some of the issues raised by Early Music and glances at others. All of the contributions are intelligent and stimulating. Will Crutchfield of The New York Times writes of the role of the performer, and of the necessity to substitute personal conviction and freedom for the arid realization of simple rules of historical performance. Philip Brett of the University of California at Berkeley discusses the problems of editing, and what it means to prepare an authentic text. He describes persuasively how even the most neutral and apparently inoffensive modernization of old forms of musical notation can alter our conceptions of the music and influence the performance. Even the simple reproduction of the old notation will not lead directly to authenticity; just the act of printing a score may lead to misunderstanding when the work as we have it was intended to be executed only a few times by a special group of singers and musicians and only under special circumstances.

Such circumstances are dealt with by Gary Tomlinson of the University of Pennsylvania, in an essay on Angelo Poliziano’s mythological play Orfeo, written at Mantua probably in 1480. Tomlinson claims that the “authentic meaning” of the music depends on a reconstruction of the historical circumstances and background of the work. He confesses to “some polemical mischief” in his choice of example, since the music to Orfeo has not survived, and may not have been written down in the first place, but only improvised by the singer, Ugolini, who portrayed Orpheus. Tomlinson gives a brilliant exposition of the probable influence of contemporary Platonism on Ugolini, with its idiosyncratic views of music, magic, and poetic frenzy. He does not speculate on the ways in which these ideas might have affected either the music that Ugolini may have improvised or the manner in which he performed, and perhaps Tomlinson is right not to attempt such speculations.

This makes his argument, however, an evasion of everything of major importance to music lovers, to musicians, and even to most historians of music. No one denies the interest of an initial study of the historical conditions in which a musical work was created; the point of difficulty, however, has always been to apply this knowledge to the music itself and to how it was once, and might be again, performed. There is some point to a savage remark by Richard Taruskin of the University of California at Berkeley (in a later essay in the same book) that by Tomlinson’s “lights an ‘authentic’ performance would seem to be a performance accompanied by a good set of programme notes.”

Taruskin writes brilliantly and at the top of his voice, and his most crushing arguments are often reserved for opinions that no one really holds. He asserts: “To presume that the use of historical instruments guarantees a historical result is simply preposterous.” No doubt. Still, Taruskin beats his dead horses with infections enthusiasm, and some of them have occasional twitches of life.

His main thesis, repeated here from earlier articles, is that the Early Music movement is not a genuinely historical crusade at all but a variety of modernism, an attempt to make the music of the past conform to the austere aesthetic that we associate with Stravinsky and his successors, and to make it sound astonishingly different in order to achieve that shock of originality demanded by the modernist ideal. This does, indeed, describe and clarify certain aspects of Early Music with great precision, and Taruskin demonstrates his thesis with easy conviction. As he says:

Changes in performing styles in the twentieth century, no less than in past centuries, have been allied with changes in composing style, and with more general changes in the aesthetic and philosophical outlook of the time.

When he adds, however, that “a multiplicity of styles is always available in any present, of which some are allied more with the past and others with the future,” this seems true but is only too pat. To group styles into reactionary and progressive as he tends to do is not helpful either: they all reach backward and forward. Taruskin’s view of modernism is too narrow, and is fueled by his hostility to many aspects of contemporary art. Modernism in music is not confined to the hard-edged neoclassicism of Stravinsky, but has its neo-Romantic side in Schoenberg and Berg which reaches into the work of Elliott Carter and Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and even into much of Pierre Boulez. In many ways, Fürtwangler, classified by Taruskin as a ghost from the past, was as “allied with the future” as Toscanini was and John Eliot Gardiner is today. In addition, Taruskin is curiously grudging; he does not want to admit that our greater knowledge of performance practice and instruments of the past can have a beneficial effect, and do more than give an unwarranted sense of superiority.

The relation of Early Music to the past is seen in a more sophisticated light by Robert Morgan of Yale University. The successive revolutions of style imposed by modernism in the twentieth century from Schoenberg and Stravinsky to Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez have made not only the general public, but many professional musicians, feel that the apparent continuity of tradition from Bach to the present has now been interrupted. Even the most unequivocal successes of modernism have not yet taken deep root in our musical consciousness: only fifteen years ago I still saw Philharmonic subscribers stalk out noisily in protest during Alban Berg’s delicate and enchanting “Post-card” songs. Those who accept Stockhausen or Philip Glass do not generally think of them as sharing a common language with Mozart. The works of the eighteenth and nineteenth century have become museum pieces that we continue to love but no longer think of as playing an active part in the creation of new music. As Morgan observes:

All this suggests that the past is slowly slipping away from us. It is no longer ours to interpret as we wish, but ours only to reconstruct as faithfully as possible.

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